This is an opinion piece written by the owner of the Seattle Direct Counseling website and blog.
Have you come across a question on Social Media that asks you to share positive things you have experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Before I do some research as to what other people in the field of psychology think about this question, I tuned into my own feelings. Mine are obvious, and you are free to disagree, yet I would ask you to read the entirety of this post and take a breath before you respond.
Nope. It’s too soon for me to share a list of silver linings. There are still people getting sick, still people dying, and still people grieving the loss of their loved ones because of COVID-19. There are still people who have lost their jobs or who are still bouncing back from economic hardship. There are still people getting evicted, moving because they can no longer afford their homes due to job loss, and still having difficulty making ends meet. There are still children and parents struggling to juggle in-person, remote classrooms, hybrid versions, and work-life balance. There are still essential workers from groceries to healthcare that are burned out, overworked, and traumatized by the care and servicing of sick, frightened, angry, and sometimes selfish people, all while they grieve the loss of fellow colleagues.
This is not to say that I haven’t seen or heard people experiencing many positive changes in their lives this year. Yet the question wasn’t just about positive changes. The question was about making a direct correlation between a pandemic – that has the potential to kill 20% of the population regardless of health history, decimate whole family systems with its easy transmission through secretions, and disable world economies for a number of years – with positive benefits.
I believe the question was intended to get people thinking about gratitude. The other potential meaning behind the question is what I find troubling.
I find that we’re often asked to make a list of positive outcomes when we’ve gone through a tough time. The problem is this: the tough time hasn’t ended. With the coronavirus out of control in many countries around the world as well as right here at home, it feels too soon to ask people to conjure a positive attitude or to list what good things they have experienced since the pandemic hit their respective towns and cities. It’s like asking people to diminish the real pain and hardship they have experienced, put on a smile, and move on, without getting to the real deal behind trauma and adversity.
If Not Silver Linings, What Else?
Is there something helpful to focus on besides silver linings and gratitude lists in the midst of difficult times, especially if you actually tried to develop a more positive attitude and found that to be — well, not very helpful?
If I could wish anything for you now, it would be a combination of Rest and Resilience.
What I mean by Rest is a short break from the elements of your life that may be causing insomnia, heartache, loneliness, burnout, and financial strain. If the coronavirus is out of control in your town, getting rest is complex. I understand you can’t let your guard down. Yet Rest can come in waves, from remembering to take time breathing fresh air when you can step outside and away from crowded areas, to choosing to turn off your smart devices at least an hour before bedtime so your brain can go into recovery mode.
Rest can mean snuggling with your pets and household members, singing along with a song you love, connecting with a friend via Zoom, or quietly putting together a puzzle while silencing distraction and stress. Rest can mean you give yourself a break from trying so hard to make this year’s holiday celebrations look exactly like previous years, especially if the means to do that cost you or others more than you can afford or risk.
What I mean by Rest is that if you have time off from work for the holiday, take it, and take it seriously like it meant your life. Rest. Your mind and body need it. If you must create something to do, you can invigorate your mind through the Art of Doing Nothing.
What I mean by Resilience is the capacity through a developing pathway or routine to adaptation through adversity. It involves mental and emotional toughness that can be built over time by allowing yourself to feel and experience something difficult, and then acknowledging what you did and how it felt as you got through it. It’s the acknowledgement that you weathered something uncomfortable if not downright painful, and you did not die.
Resilience can look like you buying your first couple of cloth masks at the start of the pandemic, moving through your feelings about wearing them, learning how to make your own, and giving or selling masks to others to help others. The next time you find yourself worrying about the pandemic, you may also realize you have adapted your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors – “I am concerned, I feel myself feeling anxious, I remember to put on my mask when I must leave my house”- in such a way that that you feel stronger to face the day. Over time, this might even feel easier.
Resilience can sound like learning to be more clear and direct with your words and actions, beginning with loved ones and expanding to your interactions with co-workers and community members. When you note how the choice to institute healthy boundaries around your time and energy has a payoff for you despite the fear of disappointment from others, you could be developing the necessary resilience to handle the kinds of uncomfortable emotions and thoughts that build when handling aspects of what so many of us fondly refer to as “adulting”, only it can feel like Adulting on Steroids.
At its most basic elements, Resilience involves personal growth. At its height and breadth, Resilience allows you develop something I call Relentless Forward Progress. It’s that part of us that can become more than we thought (and not to be confused with productivity), allowing even trauma, adversity, illness, and accidents to shape us. We would never wish these events on anyone, yet at the same time, the resilience that people can develop from having gone through these things can be profound. For more on what psychological resilience is, check out this link.
If making a list of how you think you’ve benefited by the pandemic coming to your door makes you feel more hopeful and upbeat, I’m not saying you should stop making that list.
What I am suggesting is that it wasn’t the pandemic itself — a virus that can kill — that should be celebrated right now. Rather, it’s your adaptive responses to it — and all kinds of adversity — that deserves cake and a happy dance.